Offensive ASuW- Range and the Kill Chain

So, the surface navy side of the US Navy is starting to get serious about reestablishing a credible offensive capability against enemy surface forces. ‘bout damn time.

It should be noted that offensive ASuW is currently, and will continue to be, primarily the province of  tactical airpower and submarines. One great strength of our way of war is our ability to fight asymmetrically, using our system of systems against enemy platforms. Why get into a toe-to-toe slugfest with enemy surface ships if you have better ways of doing business?

But that approach presumes that an individual ship or small task force has immediate access to either airpower or a submarine. If that’s not the case, our notional force must be able to defend itself, and take the offense. The goal of a military force, after all, is to make his life miserable, not to make yours safe.

Jon Solomon, who’s been doing some great stuff at Information Dissemination, writes about one aspect that has been getting a lot of press, but not so much deep thought- the range discrepancy between most US anti-ship missiles, and those of potential enemies

The U.S. Navy is clearly at a deficit relative to its competitors regarding anti-ship missile range. This is thankfully changing regardless of whether we’re talking about LRASM, a Tomahawk-derived system, or other possible solutions.

It should be noted, though, that a weapon’s range on its own is not a sufficient measure of its utility. This is especially important when comparing our arsenal to those possessed by potential adversaries. A weapon cannot be evaluated outside the context of the surveillance and reconnaissance apparatus that supports its employment and the overall size of its inventory.

One of the original variants of the Tomahawk missile was the TASM, or Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile. It could deliver a 1000lb warhead to a range of about 250 nautical miles at about 500 miles per hour. We fielded this capability in the early 1980s, but by the early 1990s, the TASM was withdrawn from service.


Because even though we had a missile that could fly 250nm, what we didn’t have was a reliable way to detect, localize, classify, identify, and track a target at that range. Oh, sometimes, use of SH-60B LAMPS III helicopters could make it theoretically feasible. But for the most part, it wasn’t practical. Most of the time when a potential target was found at 250nm, it was found by tactical air. And that brings us right back to tactical air being a preferred ASuW system.

Mr. Solomon uses some math in his post to illustrate some of the challenges that mean the maximum range of a missile isn’t the same as the maximum effective range, yet less the optimum engagement range.

Suffice it to say, the side that generally has the better ability to leverage Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets to line up its targets is likely to prevail in any missile duel.

We’re reminded of an early criticism of the Spruance class destroyers- that they looked very lightly armed compared to their Soviet counterparts bristling with missiles and guns. What that overlooked was that the SpruCans were instead heavily laden with sensors, such as onboard helicopters, that gave them a better ability to see the battlespace, while still carrying sufficient weapons to dominate that battlespace. The Soviet counterpart, by contrast, was a deadly threat if, and only if, it could find the enemy.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union (and its fleet) the Navy has stressed the sensor side of the sensor to shooter relationship. With the resurgence of a potential blue water foe, the Navy is again attempting to balance that relationship with a boost to the shooter side.


6 thoughts on “Offensive ASuW- Range and the Kill Chain”

  1. Facts are very much in your side here.
    The longest ranged real world engagement is 150km
    A Ukraine air defence platform took out a passenger jet at that range instead of a Drone at half that range
    A US cruiser shot down a Vietnamese jet over Hanoi at about 100 miles
    An Indian destroyer sank a Pakistani destroyer at 40miles in one of their many wars
    An Argentine aircraft sank a British destroyer at 20-30miles
    An Israeli missile boat sank a Syrian/Egyptian missile boat at 17 miles

    In the final two cases, the loser had a clear wikipedia range advantage

    1. Everything I’ve read says HMS Sheffield didn’t have her air search radar radiating. While the point stands that missile range wasn’t the determining factor in that engagement, it’s a tad bit of an apples to oranges comparison. In effect, HMS Sheffield was simply acting as a self propelled target for the Argies.

    2. xbradtc – I believe HMS Sheffield’s radar was off as she was using satellite communication systems to talk to the UK, and the two interfered with each other. There were some British surface engagements, too – mainly from helicopters against small ships / surfaced submarine, and a couple from Harriers. Not sure the ranges involved in those.
      At the moment the Royal Navy is in even worse straits ASuW-wise, with a few second-hand Harpoon sets and still no actual aircraft or carriers. Any long-range attack is assumed to come from submarines.

  2. Well, when you don’t have an off-board radar asset like the Hawkeye or E-3, you either go blind and pray no one notices you or go active and tell everyone where you’r at; i.e., binary solution set.

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